Bryan McClaskey’s lifelong dream of a bighorn sheep hunt ended up as an epic marathon adventure — on horseback and on foot. McClaskey’s bighorn trek was more like 100-plus miles on horseback and more than a marathon (26 miles) on foot. And years in the making.
The bighorn odyssey included a horse that broke free and was lost in the backcountry. As with his bighorn hunt, McClaskey went back to the remote Colorado terrain and eventually found his missing horse — and he bagged his prized bighorn ram.
“It’s a one-in-a-lifetime thing,” said the 34-year-old Grand Junction hunter. “I had always wanted to hunt bighorn but had only seen them in the canyon up in Glenwood Springs. Hunting bighorn sheep is a challenge — that’s the big part of it.”
McClaskey, who’s hunted deer, elk and antelope along with small game, said he started putting in for a bighorn permit eight years ago. “We got lucky,” he said. “You have to have enough points and you have to get drawn.”
When he received notification of his permit, he quickly called his family to spread the word. “I called my dad; I was all excited,” he said.
The whole hunting family was excited.
RECONNAISSANCE AND A LOST HORSE
The serious hunt planning began.
The initial trip into the remote location was a scouting expedition on horseback. Then McClaskey returned for a second reconnaissance outing.
“I did a couple solo horseback trips,” he said, adding he packed in with three horses to learn the country. “I saw a lot of sheep, 20 or so, but no rams.”
On his second scouting trip, he had to use a new horse when one of his regular mountain horses got sidelined with arthritis. “I had never packed with him before,” McClaskey said.
The horse tagged along with McClaskey and his other horses for a half-day, but then he disappeared. “I spent the next day looking for him,” he said. At one point, he spotted the horse with his binoculars on a neighboring ridge.
But after he worked his way over there, the horse disappeared again. McClaskey was forced to pack out with quick plans to return.
“I went back a week later and found him not far from where I lost him,” McClaskey said. “That horse hadn’t been in the mountains a lot. So a week up there by himself settled him down. He got used to the mountain environment.
“After that I did a couple more scouting trips with my buddy,” he added. “All we saw were ewes and lambs … still no rams.”
On yet another return scouting trip just days before the fall season was scheduled to begin, McClaskey and his partner rechecked the lay of the land.
“We saw two rams right out of our camp,” McClaskey said. “It was the first time we had seen rams.”
WEATHER A FACTOR
Encouraged, he returned to the area when the season opened but was plagued by bad visibility — fist from wildfire smoke and then, ironically, by early September snow and fog.
Nine inches of snow. And thick fog.
“We were stuck in camp for a couple days,” McClaskey said as he and his companions saw time and opportunity slipping away. Their time off from work was running out.
After they replenished supplies, they returned to camp and McClaskey’s dad, Lindsay McClaskey, met the group.
“Then it started to clear,” McClaskey said. They ventured out and saw signs of sheep, but no rams.
“Then that next day, working our way up a ridge, we saw what ended up being 13 rams. I couldn’t believe it,” McClaskey said, adding all of them were of age. “We just admired them for a while.”
Still, the rams were more than 1,000 yards away and as he started to make a loop working his way around a cliff, the rams spotted his movement.
“They ran to the other side,” he said. “So I decided to leave them alone and let them be for the rest of the day.”
SUCCESS AT LAST
Up early the next day, McClaskey walked solo from camp up and over a big ridge without his horse. “When I got up there, the rams were in the same spot from the day before.”
Only he was much closer this time. But again, the sheep spotted him.
“They bolted,” he said. “Then, all 13 gathered together. They turned a 180 and came back in my direction.”
Prone and hidden in the rocks, McClaskey could not believe what he saw in his scope.
“I let them come in … as close as I could,” he said, ranging the biggest ram at 458 yards. “I had practiced out to 600, so this was a little farther than I expected. But there was no wind.
“I chose the biggest one,” he added. “He turned completely broadside and stopped and then I touched one off. It was almost a perfect shot … a little far back, but he was already expired when I got to him.”
McClaskey then orchestrated a rendezvous with his father and his hunting colleague Shelby Blake.
They hadn’t heard the shot and were surprised when they saw the ram.
“My buddy gave me a big old high five,” he said. “We were persistent and finally they showed up. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
The moment was particularly special because he shared it with his family and his hunting buddy.
“I’ve been going hunting with my dad since I was 9 or 10,” he said. “Fishing, too. And he taught me a lot about horses.”
The horsemanship played a vital role in his hunt, McClaskey said, adding that he rode about 100 miles total during the scouting and hunting trips.
“That’s the farthest I’ve ever gone on horseback,” he said, recounting a difficult pack out over steep terrain that saw them walking and carrying their quarry.
As far as his next hunting dream, he said he’s looking north — way north, to Alaska. “I’d really like to hunt caribou or moose, and go fishing up there,” he said.